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Fiona Mozley on the Many Faces of Soho

Posted on 10th March 2021 by Mark Skinner

Following up the Booker-shortlisted Elmet with a picaresque novel about the changing face of Soho and the colourful characters who populate a crumbling townhouse, Fiona Mozley's Hot Stew is one of spring's most eagerly-anticipated books. In this exclusive piece, Fiona describes her own experience of living in Soho, the history of sex work in the capital and the vexed issue of gentrification.   

Soho has long been London’s playground, its streets lined with theatres, restaurants, cafés, music venues, clubs and bars. There used to be bookshops too. Lots of them. These have largely disappeared, with a few noticeable exceptions, as have record stores, gay bars, and many of the delis and food stalls selling produce from around the world. The district has long attracted immigrants: French emigrés fleeing revolution, Italians in the nineteenth century, and Jews, such as Karl Marx, who lived on Great Windmill Street and spent much of his time working in the British Library. Soho is also the capital’s red-light district. Women and men have sold sex here in various forms for centuries, from the salons of the 1700s right up to the present day, but this too is changing. The English Collective of Prostitutes has recently produced a zine covering their work in Soho over the last thirty years and the most recent spate of evictions, deportations and arrests. It is an important piece of social history, written by those who are living it, and if you want to learn about the real Soho, the real women who live and work there, the real issues they face, I encourage you buy it. 

In my new novel, Hot Stew, I wanted to create a fictional, surreal, at times fantastical picture of Soho’s changing landscape. It centres around a crumbling seventeenth-century townhouse on an unnamed Soho street. A new underground railway is being constructed beneath. Drills are boring through the bedrock and sending tremors up to the brick and concrete above. The people living in the basement feel the quaking first: they are squatting there, making a living however they can. Above is an old, traditional French restaurant. The snails sitting by the hot stove know it’s time to leave even if the proprietors don’t. Above this are flats, inhabited by women who make a living selling sex. The owner of the building who, of course, lives elsewhere is the daughter of an infamous gangster who bought property when it was still cheap. She wants to kick everyone out and convert the building to luxury flats. In gentrifying the area, she hopes she will gentrify herself. She wishes to be unstitched from her father’s grubby coattails and step out into a bright world of property, business, high finance and international shipping. There are others struggling to find their way too, from reformed thugs to privileged party boys, actors and writers and recent graduates. Everyone is flailing, one way or another. They are caught in a strong wind, opting to sail with it or against. I suppose readers might find ‘the good’ and ‘the bad’ among these characters, but, when writing it, I was more interested in exploring the workings of systems and how individuals respond differently to the structures that bind them.

I lived and worked in Soho from May to October 2013, when I was 25. I occupied the garret of a crumbling seventeenth-century townhouse. There was scaffolding up one side to stop the building falling down and if I climbed out of my window onto the scaffolding I had a makeshift balcony. I was never really meant to be there. The owners, or tenants (I wasn’t sure) thought they’d make some money by leasing it (without a contract) to those foolish enough to live in a building on the brink of collapse. The room was in Soho, however, and it was in my price range. I felt like I’d ‘Won at London’ and would brag about my good fortune to anyone who’d listen. The tip-off about the room came from my friend, D, a long-time Soho-ite who managed to hang on for longer than most, only being forced out in the last year. He knew everyone, or seemed to, and I drank with him at his local pub or else at the lesbian bar round the corner (when the lesbian bar changed hands and was turned into a strip club for straight men, D encouraged the absent owners to employ his friend to manage it and she retained the same bouncers and let in all the old clients, creating, for a brief period, a strange hybrid venue).

Anyway, it was during this summer I first thought of writing a novel set in the district. I had begun my first, Elmet, earlier in the year and promised myself I would finish it before commencing a new project. In the meantime, I was chucked out of my Soho garret by the council and hastily returned to my home town, York. Although I didn’t start writing Hot Stew until 2016 (the day after I finished Elmet) I’d spent the intervening years thinking about it, constructing characters, reading, having conversations. I visited D frequently and noticed the closure of venues, the ongoing evictions, the fight against them. I realised if Hot Stew was going to be a novel about gentrification it also had to be a novel about its resistance. Thus two – initially minor – characters, Precious and Tabitha (sex workers and reluctant activists) came to the fore and, as I wrote, it became clearer to me that they were the heart and soul of the piece. 

Protest movements have always fascinated me. I grew up on stories of my parents’ participation in the occupation of the LSE in 1968 and later the Battle of Grosvenor Square. I’ve been in a couple myself (the student protests of 2010) though I fear that I don’t have the kind of personality that allows me to be of much use - I’m too shy and don’t like crowds. Maybe because of this, I have a lot of admiration for people who take a more active role – those with the mental and physical fortitude to organise and lead such activities. That said, I’m also interested in the way political campaigns can get co-opted by various incompatible factions, or else taken over by personality cults or those with a talent for self-promotion. 

What is more, I had begun to consider the long view, and found glimpses of similar disputes across the centuries, in London and other cities. I’d commenced an MA at the University of York and wrote my dissertation on land grabs in fourteenth-century London, where the mayor and alderman frequently justified the seizure of tracts of common land by citing the presence of immoral women, many of whom may have sold sex (we can’t be sure). It’s a process that has been well-charted by social historian, P.J.P. Goldberg.

Although Hot Stew retains a contemporary setting, this historical research certainly informed its themes. So did books like Playing the Whore by Melissa Gira Grant, who writes within an American context and, later, Revolting Prostitutes by Juno Mac and Molly Smith. Again, if you want to know about the experiences of the real women who sell sex in the real Soho, the latter, along with ECP’s zine are a good place to start.

But what about Soho itself? What about the neighbourhood?

I was recently chatting about this with the author and Polari Literary Salon impresario, Paul Burston. He knows the area well and joked that people have been bemoaning ‘lost Soho’ for as long as he can remember. I think he’s probably right. Perhaps, these kinds of sentiments are just part of city living. New Yorkers reminisce about bygone days when writers could afford apartments in the East Village; Parisians scoff as districts that once housed painters become little more than tourist traps. 

Perhaps we should all just move with these shifts, get on with it. There are valid criticisms of nostalgia: a desire to cling to an often imagined past can lead to reactionary politics. But nostalgia can also prompt us to interrogate the forces at work behind the shifts and there seems to me to be something rather nihilistic about shrugging our shoulders and coming out with wry comments about the inevitability of capitalism’s all-consuming reach. Such approaches come with clichés telling us to ‘get real’, ‘wise up’, ‘grow up’, ‘move on’, ‘be pragmatic’. This attitude isn’t neutral, of course, but favours those in the ascendence. While it might be acceptable - witty even - to ridicule those who cling to obsolete technologies or the fashions of past decades, it is quite different to be blasé about the death of communities, livelihoods, and about people being priced out of the neighbourhoods in which they live and work. We can’t ignore the material, emotional, psychological impact these changes can have on people and communities. As I wrote Hot Stew, tracing these very different lives on this small patch of ground, I hoped it would contribute to this conversation, 

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